Discover more from Daniele Garofalo Monitoring
The war in Syria: How did it become the way for jihadist groups to fight Russia?
Groups and Photos
Russia has been engaged for a year and a half in the war in Ukraine with a war of attrition that is causing human, military and economic losses and increasing operational difficulties, nevertheless, it has not diverted its military and economic attention from other operational theatres, such as Syria and Africa. While in Africa, the Russian presence is linked to commercial, economic, and geopolitical engagements, with the military part entrusted to Wagner, in Syria, Russian engagement has been direct and strong since 2015, to support its important ally Bashar al-Assad, preserve its economic and geopolitical interests and defend its Mediterranean outlet in Latakia. Russian engagement in Syria is structured with the direct aid of al-Assad's army, with aviation operations, military field operations, and support in training, strategy, and logistics, mainly focused against jihadist, Islamist and rebel formations. Within the jihadist formations, there are groups composed of foreign fighters, independent or aligned with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and the al-Fateh al-Mubin operations room, who have decided to use the Syrian context as a front to fight Russia. They decided not to move to Ukraine, as was done, for example, by a group of around 30 Ajnad al-Kavkaz fighters led by former group leader Abdul Hakim al-Shishani, an Ajnad al-Kavkaz cell operating in Quneitra and known as Jund al-Qawqaz, composed of Circassian fighters, who decided to follow Abdul Hakim to Ukraine, the fighters of 'Ajnad al-Sham' who had left HTS in 2017 to join Ahrar al-Sham and have now left the ranks of the latter to go and fight in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the fighters of the Khurasan Group and finally a handful of Kosovan and Albanian fighters, who left Xhemati Alban and went to the Ukrainian front. At the same time, some Chechens, who arrived there several months ago, left the ranks (along with the sophisticated weapons they received) to return to Syria because they had disagreements with the leadership of the exiled Republic of Ichkeria.
But there are some questions that they decided to investigate and that are important to answer: Why are they fighting Russia? Why stay in Syria and not go to Ukraine or other areas where Russia fights or operates? What is the extent of their involvement in Syria? Are they there for public relations or are they fighting? Who are these groups?
Daniele Garofalo Monitoring is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The groups that will be listed below are made up of Russian (Chechen, Dagestani, Tatar, Ingush, Circassian), Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz fighters, who have decades of experience in jihadism. These groups have as their goal to fight the Russians in any context and in the medium to long term, to return to their areas of origin to “liberate them from the oppressor and Russian or its influence”. The context of the Syrian civil war in the early years was important for them to flee their home areas and use the battlefield to train, create alliances, receive weapons, and gain military experience. With the arrival of the Russians in Syria in 2015 in support of Bashar al-Assad, it became clear how the Syrian war became an opportunity to fight Russia directly on the ground, aiding local jihadist and Islamist groups in offensives against the government of Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad, hoping to shift the armed confrontation to their home countries once the “Syrian mission” was over, as made clear in numerous interviews by the leaders and commanders of these groups I conducted: “Russia is in the worst position in all of its modern history, it has pushed itself into an abyss from which it can no longer get out, and this can only cheer us up because, with Allah’s permission, they will collapse”, “The main objectives are to help the Syrians in the overthrow of the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad and the expulsion of his invading allies such as Russia and Iran, and then the establishment and government based on Shari’a law”, “Russia is an oppressor, we fight it here and in all possible theatres”, “now there is no possibility of bringing Jihad to the Caucasus, but if Russia collapses then we must be ready”, or finally “due to the lack of fighting opportunities, we have been forced to endure the oppression of our people. When the revolution started in Syria, we went to fight there. My homeland, Chechnya, was conquered and occupied by Russia, the people were exposed to genocide, and then a repressive terrorist regime was established, which to this day is strangling our people. According to Shari’a”, it is necessary to liberate our country, eliminate the tyrannical regime and establish a just state in Chechnya.
At the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the choice to fight the Russians on a new front seemed an attractive option, but after a few months, the debate in Syria polarized towards a denial, and even a condemnation of those who left, as many of the jihadists who had reached Ukraine from Syria, had joined the ranks of Muslim battalions run by the Ukrainian authorities or the troops of the Republic of Ichkeria in exile led by Zakayev, because “one should not become a soldier of the armed forces of Ukraine" and "Zakayev is untrustworthy, a liar and has carried out actions contrary to Islam”.
All the groups we will explore have always been very active alongside other local jihadist groups, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Ansar al-Islam, Ansar a-Tawhid, and the Turkestan Islamic Party, but if they hit and fight the Russians as allies of the al-Assad regime, the support or operation of the “migrants of Asia and Russia” groups were always focused towards the main fight and confrontation against the Russian military: “the regime and the Russians cannot be fought in the open, as this would cause heavy casualties, rather a war of attrition is needed, operations must be fought in small groups. A lot of operations, but on a relatively small scale using small groups of fighters: a precise sniper strike, an artillery attack, a missile attack and hit, kill, retreat. [...] The number one objective is to inflict as much damage on the Russians as possible. [...] The brothers came to Syria, they are training, they will prepare for combat, but they are already determined to return to Chechnya, and fight'. Their activity increased considerably when they chose to align themselves with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the military and logistical rules of the 'al-Fateh al-Mubin Operations Room”.
The anti-Russian propaganda of these jihadist groups operating in Syria never stopped, constantly condemning Russia, its attacks, its foreign policy, and its oppression of Muslims. Military operations were based on opportunity and guerrilla warfare. But since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, attacks on the Russian military in Syria have increased considerably, particularly on Syrian military posts, camps and checkpoints where Russian military cadres or soldiers are present. Anti-Russian jihadist groups have realized the weakness of Damascus’ Russian ally on the Syrian front and have therefore intensified their attacks.
The past two weeks have been particularly active for the anti-Russian jihadist groups, which have intensified attacks and conducted major military operations. On 26 August, a very violent attack was conducted against a large military camp of the Syrian regime in which Russian military and logistical personnel were stationed, on the al-Malajah axis in the Jabal al-Zawiya area, southwest of the Idlib governorate.
It was a very large operation conducted in collaboration with three groups, the jihadist group Tavhid vo Jihad, the jihadist group Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (as we shall see, groups composed of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Dagestani) and the Syrian jihadist group Ansar al-Tawhid, in collaboration and under the supervision of the “Al-Fateh al-Mubin Operations Room” of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Fig. 1 - An image of the al-Fateh al-Mubin Operations Room coordinating the attack.
The jihadist groups dug three deep tunnels under the Syrian/Russian military camp and then blew them up by detonating large explosives, causing numerous casualties. Inside the military camp were hundreds of Syrian government army soldiers, numerous military vehicles and a group of Russian soldiers and officers (who oversaw support and logistics).
Fig. 2 - Jihadist fighters placing explosives in the tunnels.
Fig. 3 - An image of the explosion.
After the explosion, the three groups, with the support of the HTS artillery and missile brigade, conducted a series of attacks against other surviving soldiers. Snipers from Tavhid va Jihod hit the Syrian and Russian soldiers from one side of the camp, while fighters from Ansar al-Tawhid, those from Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal Ansar and the HTS artillery brigade struck from three other sides of the Russian/Syrian military camp with mortars, heavy artillery, and Vulcan missiles.
Fig. 4 - A photo by Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal Ansar from 28 August showing the subsequent artillery attacks against reinforcements that arrived in al-Malajah.
Fig. 5 - The Tavhid va Jihod Uzbek special forces fighters who led the attack.
According to the jihadist media, the operation after two days resulted in almost 50 dead and about 80 wounded, in addition to the destruction of the entire military camp and numerous military vehicles and firearms.
Between 26 August and 7 September, the regime sent reinforcements to the al-Malajah hills area several times, in particular the 25th Division, other Russian forces, and Hezbollah militiamen. The dispatch was unsuccessful, as the remaining jihadist groups in the area, after conquering the al-Malajah hills, repelled all Syrian/Russian attacks (the Russian Air Force conducted numerous bombings in different areas of the Idlib governorate, which mostly provoked the jihadist reaction). The attacks and the defence of the hills were also successful with the use of drones, techniques, and armoured vehicles.
Fig. 6 - A photo of the subsequent attacks to repel the regime and Russian forces filmed by drones.
In the period between 27 August and 8 September, Tavhid Media, Sabiqun Media and Ansar Media, the official media channels of the three jihadist groups, published dozens of statements, photos and three videos, to show the important attack and defence operations conducted against the regime and the Russians (the first two media channels disseminated propaganda in the language
On 2 September 2023, in response to the regime and Russian Air Force bombardments conducted in the governorate of Idlib in retaliation for the defeat of al-Malajah, the jihadist group Mujaheddin Ghuroba Division (composed, as we shall see, of Uzbeks and Tajiks, among others), under the directives and supervision of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) “al-Fateh al-Mubin Operations Room”, stormed the positions of the Syrian governmental army and the Russian military in the village of Kafr Ta’al, on the axis of the 46th regiment, in the western countryside of the Aleppo governorate.
G’uroba Media, the group's media channel, published on 3 September, in Russian and Uzbek, the day after the attack, a photo report showing the fighters of the jihadist group first preparing, studying strategies, and then conducting the attack. On 4 September, it released a 3:03-minute video entitled “The Battle of Kafr Ta’al” in which the group shows in detail the entire operation, from preparation, strategy study, weapons selection, and the attack.
Fig. 7 and 8 - Moments of the attack by Mujaheddin Ghuroba fighters on Kafr Ta’al.
The attack on the site was conducted in a variety of ways, with direct infantry assaults, motorbike and technical assaults, the use of mortars and missiles, and with the use of armoured and tracked vehicles. The group claimed to have killed 35 Syrian government army soldiers.
Regime-linked media claimed that the attack was repelled and that it was carried out by Turkestan Islamic Party militants in collaboration with HTS. This shows how there is little knowledge among the regime’s media (and probably among the ranks of the regime’s army) of the groups operating on the ground (a possible mistake due to the presence of Uyghurs in the Ghuroba community group, but easily understandable by seeing the different patches, coats of arms and flags).
Let us therefore go into detail and see which anti-Russian jihadist groups are composed of “migrant” fighters (from Russia or former Soviet areas):
Katibat Tavhid va Jihod
Tavhid va Jihod Uzbek, also known as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal Jihad, is a jihadist group composed mainly of Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz fighters, which has decided to adhere to the operational and military rules of HTS and has been integrated into the Liwa “Abu Ubeida al-Jirrah”.
Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad was created in northern Syria in 2013 by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov, alias Abu Saloh, an influential ethnic Uzbek Jihadist Salafist from the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan. Under his leadership, the group swore allegiance to al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the al-Nusra Front in September 2015. The current leader of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad is Ilmurad Khikmatov, aka Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki, who was elected as the new leader in April 2019. Interestingly, the previous leader Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership under pressure from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for openly supporting his jihadist opponent, the Qaedist group Hurras al-Din.
Since 2014, it has operated throughout northwestern Syria alongside the al-Nusra Front and then HTS. Its fighters have participated in numerous battles against the regime over the years, such as the offensives in Jisr al-Shughur, Latakia, Idlib, Hama and Aleppo. More recently Tavhid va Jihod fighters were seen manning the front lines in Jabal al-Zawiyah and conducting attacks in Idlib's southern countryside.
In March 2022, the US State Department designated Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad as a global terrorist group.
The group operates mainly in Syria’s Idlib province, collaborates with other jihadist groups such as Liwa al-Muhajireen wal Ansar and has established its tactical group called Muhojir Tactical.
The group consists of 400 to 500 fighters, specializing in sniping operations, operations behind enemy lines, direct assaults and artillery and mortar attacks. Its current emir is Ustoz Abdul Aziz, the militia leader is Sayfiddin al-Uzbeki and the main ideologue imam is Ahluddin Navqotiy.
The cleric Ahluddin Navqotiy, in the centre the Emir Ustoz Abdul Aziz and on the left the military leader Sayfiddin.
The group, although linked to HTS, has its own very strong ideological and doctrinal basis that sees as its main objective to overthrow the “regimes” of Central Asia, overthrow Russian influence and build a single caliphate where Shari'a is applied and which has its operational centre in the Ferghana Valley.
Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (LMA)
LMA was founded in 2012 under the name “Muhajireen Battalion” and was led by Abu Omar al-Shishani. In March 2013, the Muhajireen Battalion merged with two Syrian jihadist groups, Jaysh Muhammad and Kata'ib Khattab, to form the Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar group. In late November 2013, in an online statement, Abu Omar al-Shishani pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and decided to join the Islamic State. The group suffered a major split, with hundreds of members siding with Abu Omar and joining ISIS. Instead, the original group began cooperating with the al-Nusra Front and actively participated in the Aleppo offensives against the Syrian army and its allies, in 2013 and throughout 2014. On 23 September 2015, Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar officially allied with the al-Nusra Front and on 28 January 2017, Liwa Muhajireen wal-Ansar became a member group of HTS.
With HTS, the group fought all campaigns in northwestern Syria between late 2017 and mid-2019, in the governorates of Idlib and Hama. Since 2020, the group has been engaged in offensives under the military supervision of the HTS operations room, fortification, and control of Ribat points, reconnaissance and observation of enemy positions, training of other brigades, conducting sniping, artillery and behind enemy lines operations.
The group’s leadership structure consists of military leadership, a Shari'a committee, a Shura council and a media arm (LMA). The group operates in the governorates of Latakia, Aleppo, and Idlib and is composed of between 400 and 500 fighters, mostly Chechens, Tajik Dagestani, Azeris, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, but there are also Libyans, Saudis, and Turks within.
The current leader of the LMA is Abdullah Dagestani, who is often shown in photos checking points in Ribat, while the military leader is al-Bara al-Shishani. The LMA is integrated into the HTS brigades as “Liwa Said ibn Zeid”.
Fig. 10 - The military leader al-Bara al-Shishani and the group's emir Abdullah Daghestani
LMA’s objectives are the overthrow of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the expulsion of the 'invaders' allied to it such as Russia and Iran, and the establishment and government governed by Sharia law. The group’s ultimate goal is to reopen a new front in Chechnya and Dagestan and free it “from the Russian oppressor”.
Mujaheddin Ghuraba Division
In July 2017, a new jihadist group established itself in northwestern Syria, the Katibat al-Ghuraba al Turkistan, when it began to disseminate videos of its battles against the Assad regime alongside other jihadist groups. The group collaborated with Malhama Tactical between 2018 and 2019 and with other jihadist groups such as Tavhid va Jihod and Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal Ansar. It aligned itself with HTS with which it participated in several offensives in northern Hama and southern Aleppo. Since 2022, it has shown itself in its propaganda and operations under the name Mujaeddin Ghuroba Division or the “Ghuroba Community”. The group is also known in Syria as Quvvat Ghuroba or Ghuroba Community.
It is a jihadist group composed of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Uyghurs but also includes Arabs within it, integrated into HTS about a year ago as Liwa Umar ibn al-Khattab. The leader of the group is Abu Abdurahman al-Turkistani.
Fig. 11 - The leader of Mujaheddin Ghuroba Division, Abu Abdurahman al-Turkistani.
The areas where he is established and operates are the governorates of Idlib and Aleppo. There are more than 300 fighters. They are mainly involved in attacks against Syrian government army positions and the fortification and control of Ribat points. It also holds a training camp, where it trains its recruits, particularly in the use of sniper rifles and AKs.
Through G’uroba Media, a very active media channel, the group disseminates propaganda in the Uzbek and Uyghur languages, in particular photos and videos, in which it often not only shows meetings, training and military operations but also publishes propaganda videos against China and Russia. The ultimate goal is to free Central Asia from Russian influence and East Turkestan “from the Chinese oppressor”.
This is an exclusively Chechen jihadist group active in northern Syria, mainly in the mountainous and forested areas of the Latakia Governorate and Idlib. Ajnad al-Kavkaz, “Soldiers of the Caucasus” was born in 2015 from the merger of two groups of Chechen veterans whose fighters previously belonged to the former Caucasus Emirate, the Jama'at al-Khilafa al-Qawqazia founded in 2013 and led by Abdul Hakim Shishani and Jama’at Jund al-Qawqaz. Under the leadership of Abdul Hakim in the spring of 2015, it adopted the name Ajnad al-Kavkaz. Also in 2015, Ajnad al-Kavkaz joined the Army of Conquest, an alliance of Islamist rebel groups led by the al-Nusra Front. In July 2017, after clashes in Idlib between Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, Abdul Hakim al-Shishani declared his group's neutrality and independence. On 1 October 2017, the militia announced that it would suspend its participation in military operations in Syria until other Islamist groups “determine their strategy in the Syrian jihad arena”, preferring instead to start collaborating exclusively with the jihadist contractor group Malhama Tactical. Even throughout 2018, the group remained neutral and inactive, avoiding taking sides in the clash between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Syrian branch of al-Qa’ida, Hurras al-Din (HaD). In 2019, however, Ajnad al-Kavkaz fought alongside another independent jihadist group, Ansar al-Tawhid, in the governorate of Hama. During the Syrian army’s government offensive in north-western Syria in 2020, Ajnad al-Kavkaz snipers took part in the defence of Jabal al-Zawiya. In October 2022, there were rumours, later confirmed, that many Ajnad al-Kavkaz fighters had left Syria because they were at odds with HTS. In fact, in June 2023, it was discovered that Abdul Hakim al-Shishani and some of his lieutenants of their own free will had chosen, out of opportunity, to go and fight the Russians in other contexts, and as explained to me by a jihadist leader with whom I am in contact, Ajnad al-Kavkaz is still in Syria and regularly operating: “there are no problems between us, we have brotherly relations, as you have seen the Amir of Ajnad al-Kavkaz himself, he came to see us. They are an independent group, they (as well as Abdul Hakim) have nothing to do with the HTS, but we are on good terms, and we cooperate”. Thus, it is important to clarify that only a part of the Ajnad al-Kavkaz fighters have gone to Ukraine, leaving the ranks and for their motivation linked to their willingness to fight the Russians in a new theatre of operations. In fact, in a video published by Jaysh Muhajireen wal Ansar (LMA), a Chechen jihadist group described above, released on 12 June 2023, several training scenes are shown, and after the first part, LMA leader Abdullah al-Daghestani and the current leader, commander-in-chief, of Ajnad al-Kavkaz, Abdul Malik al-Shishani, are shown together. In the video, Ajnad al-Kavkaz fighters collaborate with LMA and the jihadist Muhojir Tactical group.
Fig. 12 - The leader of Ajnad al-Kavkaz, Abdul Malik al-Shishani.
On 8 July, Ajnad al-Kavkaz media published a photo report showing its fighters training in the use of small arms and sniper rifles in the hilly areas of Idlib. Other evidence confirms their quiet presence in the “liberated” areas of northern Syria in collaboration with fighters close to HTS.
Fig. 13 - One of the pictures in the photo report. On the left, one of the fighters can be seen holding a patch of the flag of the Republic of Ichkeria.
On 9 November 2022, on various social networks and messaging apps, Uzbek fighters released a 10-minute video announcing the formation of Muhojir Tactical and the speaker, Abu Valid al-Shami, a member of the jihadist group Tavhid va Jihod Uzbek, explaining what the new tactical group would be about: “In this project there will be introductions on how to use weapons, we will explain mistakes not to make in battle or actions that should be done, which uniforms and tactical material to use, how it should be worn”. The video also introduces the instructor of the Muhojir Tactical apprentice of the jihadist group LMA.
The new tactical group is thus linked to the Uzbek jihadist group Tavhid vo Jihod (KTJ), and the founders and leaders are two Uzbek jihadist fighters Abu Valid al-Shami and Ayyub Hawk. Ayyub is also the main instructor of the tactical group, which also trains LMA fighters. This tactical group is very active propagandistically and has released numerous photos and twenty videos in recent months, showing the use of various weapons, accessories, and operational tactics. The video and photo material produced has been widely disseminated on social networks and messaging apps, in all Russian and Uzbek language channels.
The emergence of Muhojir Tactical shows two interesting elements. The first is the definitive affirmation of tactical groups within the Syrian jihadist galaxy, and the second is that, although tactical groups appear to be divided according to nationality and connection to a particular jihadist group they often collaborate. The leaders of the group have repeatedly expressed the need to train and become experts in the use of weapons and armed struggle, to defeat their enemies, to be able to fight them as equals, in particular Russia “which is an aggressor and no matter where it attacks Muslims or brotherly people, the whole world sees and understands who the terrorist is”.
Fig. 14 - The two leaders of Muhojir Tactical: Ayyub Hawk and Abu Valid al-Shami.
Over the past year, local groups such as HTS (within the special forces of HTS, the red bandages, there are also Russian and Uzbek fighters from Malhama Tactical) Ansar al-Tawhid and Ansar al-Islam have also conducted military operations and propaganda against the Russians, but this is solely because they are an ally of the regime. The groups mentioned, on the other hand, fight against Russia as a priority, in every possible theatre of operations. It is necessary to pay close attention to these types of groups, their activities and their propaganda, as they show the great military capabilities they have achieved, the very high training and perhaps the most important factor, is that the Syrian theatre is only the area in which to train and gain experience before they have the opportunity to take the jihadist fight to other theatres of operation, particularly their home areas. Therefore, operational theatres such as the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia could be rekindled in the medium and long term.
The analysis appeared on 05/11/2023 on Akhbar al-Aan Media TV.
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
Support my research, analysis and monitoring with a donation here PayPal.Me/DanieleGarofalo88
Daniele Garofalo Monitoring is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.